Thursday, June 10, 2010

Quickies don't work for me

I recently got back from two weeks in China (having visited Yangshuo, Guilin and Beijing), and I wanted to share a quick observation about my ability to interact with people in Mandarin.

Am I the only one who experiences this? I'd love to hear from you - either way - so please leave a quick comment below.

Basically, when I have a conversation which lasts more than a few minutes, I have a relatively high success rate: I can understand them, they can understand me, and we can cover a decent range of topics. But when the conversation is just a quick one - one of us asking a question and the other required to answer - the success rate is definitely not as good.

For example:
  • I might ask someone for directions - and they reply back to me with a series of rapid sentences which I just don't get. Sure, I hear words like "qián​miàn" (forwards), "yòu​bian" (on your right) and "rán​hòu" (thereafter) ... but it's too much too quickly, and I invariably have to ask them to repeat themselves more slowly.
  • Interestingly, when I first engage them in a short-ish conversation first, and so give them the opportunity to gauge my vocab and listening-skills, then I have a much greater success rate in understanding the directions which I then ask for - because they will have calibrated to my level.
  • Similarly, when I enter a shop, and the assistant comes up to me and speaks a few sentences - I often have no idea what they're saying. Again, too much, too fast. It might be something as simply as "Thanks for popping in. We've got some great special offers, but I'll leave you to look around yourself for a while, and then when you're ready please come speak to me again." Or maybe they're just asking me not to touch anything because I might break it.
  • Also, when getting into a taxi (especially in Beijing) and telling the driver where I want to go, I guess his assumption is that I can speak Chinese well - because they then launch into a one minute speech, which usually goes right over my head. (When I tell them that I didn't understand, usually the younger drivers will try again more slowly, probably using simpler language, while the older drivers either tend to say it again just as fast, or they simply shrug and remain silent.)

Is there a moral to this story? Probably - I can think of a few. But why don't you take a moment, think about what this means to you in relation to your own Mandarin studies, and then leave a comment for other readers.


  1. I find this exact problem with my Mandarin teachers. In class where I know the topic I get by really well. I can speak and they understand me. I understand them, 'cause I have a reference. However, outside of class, when I randomly bump into them in town, they say hello and start speaking. THEN, immediately everything flies over my head. No idea whatsoever. Then I feel so bad for not understanding.
    I guess, I should open the conversations to steer into a topic I can understand.

  2. Niel, I had something quite similar. My Chinese teacher's parents were visiting London from Beijing, and I spent the night talking to her father (as best as possible, anyway). A few days later, I bumped into them at the local supermarket, and I couldn't work out how to say "How are you doing? Have you been enjoying London?" I experienced a major 'brain fart' (as we used to say at school).

    Maybe I'll always start off talking about the weather ... :-)

  3. I think it's just an issue of exposure - more listening practice is needed.
    For instance in Chinese class earlier this week during listening practice we had no trouble understanding difficult words that we have spent time learning, but for some reason had trouble picking out a simple word such as 樓長 simply because I've never heard the word said out loud. Obviously if it was written down and I was reading it there wouldn't be a problem.
    Or I can remember when I first arrived in Taiwan, I could order an iced tea in Chinese, but if the shop assistant said anything that was out of the scope of buying the tea, or asked something as simple as 'how much sugar do you want?' - but asked in a different way than usual, then that would throw me off completely and I had no way to answer.

  4. ChineseHacks, I think that's exactly the difference between learning enough of a language to have basic communications, and actually being able to communicate two-way.

    If you want to say 'correct' to someone, you could say 对 (duì​) and they would understand. But if you were the one asking the question, and they replied 当然 (dāng​rán​)(of course), then you'd really need to know that phrase too.

    For example, I'm aware the words like 关心 (guān​xīn​) and 在乎 (zài​hu​) have a similar meaning (to care about something) - and knowing one is enough if you're talking, but both seem to be common enough that you really ought to know both if you're listening.

  5. ChineseHacks: By the way, you mentioned the word 樓長 (simplified: 楼长). What is that? I've looked in both and nciku, and neither have an entry for that word?

  6. Interesting one, I have been focusing mainly on Thai for a little while but am going to come back to blogging more about Mandarin again.

    I would say you are right in assuming that there is a calibration process going on, mostly on the part of the people you are talking to, also although I am working on examples in this country as you observe many older Chinese can't calibrate (they don't have enough experience talking to foreigners?) I have tried to actually work out how much more important input is over output and so far I guesstimate about 10 times as much. As you point out one set of common vocab and phrasing will allow you to speak a concept but the same concept can come to you in a number of different but equally valid ways. Worse than that though you can for example easily learn to explain what you do for a living but the potential answers to that question are vast....

    So yes basically I agree with your conclusions, it is easy to talk about your-self but having a long and natural conversation where you are mostly listening and they are talking 70% is !"@%ing hard.

    Luckily if you are practicing in England I have discovered something that helps. Once an animal trainer relative taught me a secret, almost every four legged animal has an itch behind their ear that they just can't quite scratch, scratch it for them and you quickly become their friend.

    Almost every Chinese over here has a tale or gripe about this Country that they can't tell to another Chinese person comfortably or they can't tell or express to an English person. If they think your Mandarin is good enough you may become that opportunity to tell the tale, you never know what it will be, it is a great way to practice for the unexpected.

    Have you activated any of these tales in the past?

  7. BTW 樓長 I assume would be a building manager or chief or head. jiazhang is a household head (as is common) louzhang is would guess is similar. I am finding a quite a few words I come across in conversation are not in dictionaries sadly, have to make lots of assumptions, but I would have needed clear context for this word (assuming that the meaning is correct), doesn't seem common to me, words like fangdong (landlord) pop up quite often.

    If not one word but two it could be floor length? I suppose but that is the nature of Chinese, and particularly words in isolation. I am happy to say that my Chinese friends confirm that if they hear a Chinese word in isolation they usually don't know what it means :).

  8. Or possibly floor manager of course ;) zhang does get rammed on the end of loads of manager words and military ranks etc.

  9. Hey Chris

    When you refer to a tale, are you referring to them telling you stories where they're more interested in talking then listening, which then gives you a bit of a reprieve in terms of interacting? If so, I know what you mean! Beijing taxi drivers certainly like to talk, and when I've run out of vocab with them, all I have to do is listen, nod, say "hao hao" and "ran hou ne?" - and they can talk the entire journey. Although with their Beijing accent, I can't always claim to understand much of what they're saying :-)

    I'd love to hear more about your 10:1 point, I'm not sure I'm following you here.

    Thanks also for the clarification of possible meaning of 'that word', very useful. (I call it 'that word' because I'm replying on my iPad, and unable to work out how to copy text from the rest of this screen!

  10. Hello Greg :)

    I am sorry that my reply is more than a year late but seeing that I didn't know about your blog when this was written I'd like to be pardoned please :)

    My thoughts: I think I am with's reply. It must be an exposure thing - at least this is what I like to believe else there is just no hope for me.

    This is how this relates to me: I never have long conversations. The only long conversations I've ever had were monologues - recordings done for assignments. :) My conversations are always short and based around the vocab and things I know – I almost always initiate them. Whenever a phrase or word pops up in the conversation and I don’t know it – it has the ability to knock my confidence a little and I inevitably revert back to the comfortable ‘听不懂’ phrase – sadly my saviour in such situations.

    I look forward to the day that this won’t happen to me. Hopefully I’ll have enough listening practice and vocab under my belt to deal with this situation differently one day… :)

  11. I think though that we all agree ... it is better to be stuck in a conversation, having to say ‘听不懂’, than not having that conversation at all! :-)